'Flawless': NASA's InSight lander touches down on Mars successfully

A NASA spacecraft designed to burrow beneath the surface of Mars landed on the red planet Monday after a six-month, 482 million-kilometre journey and a perilous, six-minute descent through the rose-hued atmosphere.

Spacecraft is 1st built to explore the deep interior of the red planet

The first photo sent back to Earth after the InSight lander touched down on Mars on Monday: a view of a flat, smooth expanse on the Red Planet called Elysium Planitia. (EPA-EFE/NASA)

A NASA spacecraft designed to burrow beneath the surface of Mars landed on the red planet Monday after a six-month, 482 million-kilometre journey and a perilous, six-minute descent through the rose-hued atmosphere.

Flight controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, leaped out of their seats and erupted in screams, applause and laughter as news came in that the three-legged InSight lander had touched down on the red planet.

"Flawless," declared JPL's chief engineer, Rob Manning. 

"This is what we really hoped and imagined in our mind's eye," he said. "Sometimes things work out in your favour."

A pair of mini satellites trailing InSight since their May liftoff provided practically real-time updates of the spacecraft's supersonic descent through the reddish skies. The satellite also shot back a quick photo from Mars's surface.

The image was marred by specks of debris on the camera cover. But that quick look at the vista showed a flat, sandy surface with few if any rocks — just what scientists were hoping for. Much better pictures will arrive in the hours and days ahead.

An artist's concept shows the InSight lander, its sensors, cameras and instruments. After a six-month journey, the spacecraft successfully touched down on Mars on Monday. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

"What a relief," Manning said. "This is really fantastic." He added: "This never gets old."

The InSight spacecraft reached the surface after going from 19,800 km/h to zero in six minutes flat, using a parachute and braking engines to slow down. Radio signals confirming the landing took more than eight minutes to cross the nearly 160 million kilometres between Mars and Earth.

It was NASA's ninth attempt to land at Mars since the 1976 Viking probes. All but one of the previous U.S. touchdowns were successful.

NASA last landed on Mars in 2012 with the Curiosity rover.

Members of the mission control team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., react on a video screen as the Insight lander sets down on Mars on Monday. (Bill Ingalls/NASA)

Across North America, live viewings were held at museums, planetariums and libraries, as well as Times Square in New York.

"Landing on Mars is one of the hardest single jobs that people have to do in planetary exploration," said InSight's lead scientist, Bruce Banerdt. "It's such a difficult thing, it's such a dangerous thing that there's always a fairly uncomfortably large chance that something could go wrong."

Mars has been the graveyard for a multitude of space missions. Up to now, the success rate at the red planet has been only 40 per cent, counting every attempted flyby, orbital flight and landing by the U.S., Russia and other countries since 1960.

An artist's impression shows InSight entering the Martian atmosphere, about 128 kilometres above the surface and just minutes from landing. (NASA/JPL)

The U.S., however, has pulled off seven successful Mars landings in the past four decades, not counting InSight, with only one failed touchdown.

No other country has managed to set and operate a spacecraft on the dusty red surface.

InSight was shooting for Elysium Planitia, a plain near the Martian equator that the InSight team hopes is as flat as a parking lot in Kansas with few, if any, rocks.

This is no rock-collecting expedition. Instead, the stationary 360-kilogram lander will use its 1.8-metre robotic arm to place a mechanical mole and seismometer on the ground. 

The self-hammering mole will burrow five metres down to measure the planet's internal heat, while the seismometer listens for possible quakes.

But just getting those instruments in place will take several months, as NASA scientists will first need to assess the health of the spacecraft and the area where it landed. 

Nothing like this has been attempted before on Mars, a planet nearly 160 million kilometres from Earth.

People react as they watch InSight land on Mars from Times Square in New York City. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

No lander has dug deeper than several inches, and no seismometer has ever worked on Mars.

By examining the interior of Mars, scientists hope to understand how our solar system's rocky planets formed 4.5 billion years ago and why they turned out so different — Mars cold and dry, Venus and Mercury burning hot, and Earth hospitable to life.

"We're trying to go back in time to the earliest stages of our planet," Banerdt said. "The fingerprints of those early processes just aren't here on the Earth."

InSight has no life-detecting capability, however. That will be left to future rovers. NASA's Mars 2020 mission, for instance, will collect rocks that will eventually be brought back to Earth and analyzed for evidence of ancient life.